As Minnesota moves toward green energy, young family does, too

Sloane and Chip LaCasse make an after-school snack for their 2 sons.
Sloane and Chip LaCasse make an after-school snack for their two sons inside their Edina home on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Chip LaCasse had a great job, traveling the world, earning lots of money. He would spend months in remote areas, running tests on new oil wells to predict how much they would produce.

"I got to ride on boats way out into the ocean or fly in helicopters," he recalled. "I felt like I was doing something meaningful."

But LaCasse always felt ambivalent about the environmental impact of oil and the long-term future of the industry.

"Yes, the U.S. is now producing 11 million barrels of oil per day and you know 10 years ago, we were producing like 5 or 6 [million]," he said. "That may sound very impressive, but it's not going to last as long as we would all like it to."

When he married Sloane in 2007, they lived in oil-producing communities on the gulf coast in Alaska and Canada. They started talking seriously about how to transition away from the oil industry. Sloane felt strongly about the negative environmental impact of oil.

"We did believe that oil had a short life ahead of it, but we still couldn't deny that we were able to save a ton of money every month and prepare for our future in ways that most people couldn't," she said.

Sloane and Chip grew up in Minnesota, and both wanted to return to the state.

So in 2009, Chip started looking for a new job. He took a course on installing solar panels, but the pay wouldn't support a family. There just weren't many jobs in the renewable energy industry.

Chip LaCasse sits for a portrait inside of his family's Edina, Minn., home
Chip LaCasse sits for a portrait inside of his family's Edina home on Friday. LaCasse previously worked in the oil industry before transitioning to solar.
Evan Frost | MPR News

That's changing. Solar energy is now one of the fastest-growing job categories in Minnesota. The number of solar industry jobs in the state has more than doubled since 2015. It's still a relatively small industry — with about 4,600 jobs — but it's expected to continue growing.

Minnesota has nearly 60,000 clean energy jobs, and renewable energy jobs in the state are growing faster than any other state in the Midwest.

Because the technical skills of a petroleum engineer didn't easily transfer to big Minnesota companies, Chip became a consultant for oil industry giants, traveling the world for months at a time while Sloane stayed in the Twin Cities with the couple's first child.

"It certainly wasn't as easy of a break philosophically or logistically as I had originally hoped it would be, but God, we learned so much," Sloane said. "You know it's really easy to be here in our northern community and be mad at oil, but it's much harder to be mad at it when you're living right next to it."

Sloane saw the high-paying jobs for workers with all levels of education, and she learned how oil is interwoven through daily life — from transportation to clothing to medicine.

"But one thing we always saw was how pollution always followed," she said. "One of the things we always wanted was to come back here because the air is fresh and the lakes are clean. That matters to us so much. It was Minnesota in the end that got us to make the break."

In 2015, oil prices dropped and Chip's consulting work ended. Then he found a job with Geronimo Energy, a Minnesota company that designs and builds solar farms.

"We are essentially happier and probably have a better quality of life, even though money was very, very stressful for a couple of years," Sloane said. "It's still stressful. It's getting better, definitely, but we took a 70 percent income loss."

The change from working on offshore oil rigs to Minnesota farm fields was dramatic. But Chip finds the work rewarding, and he feels better being part of the renewable energy industry.

"It has a much longer runway than oil does. It has the potential to help us transition away from hydrocarbons," said Chip. "It's easy for me to be pessimistic about it, like we're going to burn everything until it's all gone or until we can no longer afford to pull it out of the ground."

"But," interjected Sloane, "I feel like in our short last 10 years, so much has already exponentially increased that I feel like it's a little easier for me to feel optimistic. So to me, that's a small lens of what's possible in that we're just one family.

"And I hope that continues — for personal and professional reasons," said Chip, laughing. "We just have to see how things go with just the adoption and the interest and the transitioning efforts by major utility companies."